The cervix is the lower part of the uterus and serves as a canal to the vagina. More than 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year according to the National Cancer Institute.
Doctors have identified precancerous conditions for cervical cancer. Changes in the shape, size and number of cells on the surface of the cervix can start to occur between the ages of 25 and 35. When these changes become more pronounced, the condition is known as Dysplasia or Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia 1. Larger scale changes of the same kind are called Severe Dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3 or Carcinoma in situ. This usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 40. Most precancerous conditions can be treated before cancer has a chance to develop.
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- HPV (Human Papillomavirus) – certain strains
- Poor diet or diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Birth control pills – long-term use
- Family history
- DES (Diethylstilbestrol) — Daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy for the prevention of miscarriages
HPV and Cervical Cancer Risk
HPV is an extremely common virus with over 100 different strains, but 14 have been found to significantly increase cancer risks. Prevention is important. Two screenings (pap and HPV) can help prevent cervical cancer or detect it early.
When Should I Get Screened?
From 21 to 29, you should get a pap test every three years if your results are normal. From 30 to 65, you may receive a pap test, or an HPV test or both. From 65+, you may no longer need to take these tests. Talk to your doctor for more information.
Symptoms are slight or nonexistent. Pap tests and pelvic exams are the only reliable ways to detect precancerous or cancerous growth. However, pain or blood during sex, unusual vaginal discharge and blood spotting outside of the regular menstrual cycle are possible symptoms.
Detection and Diagnosis
Pap tests should be performed regularly. The physician extracts a sample of tissue from the cervix and sends it to a laboratory for examination. During a colposcopy the physician looks at the cervix through a magnifying instrument. If abnormalities are found, they can be removed so that precancerous growth stops before it develops into cancer.
In a cystoscopy or protoscopy, the physician use a thin-lighted tube to determine whether cancer has spread to the bladder or rectum.
During a biopsy, a pathologist examines a piece of tissue under a microscope.
Imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scans or MRIs can assist the physician in detecting whether cancer has spread.
Surgery can be performed to remove abnormal or malignant growth. If cancer is limited to the surface of the cervix, a surgeon can perform laser surgery, freezing or burning procedures. If cancer has permeated through but is limited to the cervix, the tumor can be removed sparing the uterus and ovaries. If cancer has spread outside the cervix, a surgeon may perform a hysterectomy, removing the entire uterus and possibly the fallopian tubes, ovaries and surrounding lymph nodes.
Radiation therapy involves killing cancerous cells with intense x-rays aimed only at the cancerous growth. Radiation can be delivered externally or placed internally at the targeted area. Side effects can include difficulty urinating, nausea, loss of taste and appetite, weight loss and skin texture changes.
Chemotherapy often is combined with other treatments. Anticancer drugs are administered through a catheter directly into the vein or are taken by mouth. Since these drugs kill rapidly growing cells, noncancerous cells also can be killed. Side effects vary but in general, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and a lower resistance to infection can be expected.
Biological therapies make use of products in the body's own immune system. Since our antibodies fight infection, laboratory-made antibodies can fulfill the same function. Interferon, a protein usually generated by white blood cells, is known to shrink or stop the growth of cervical cancer. This treatment often is combined with chemotherapy.